The Political Theology of Abortion
Monday Notes
The Political Theology of Abortion
Christian conservatives weren’t always pro-life. They became pro-life—and changed Christianity in the process.
Published on: May 9, 2022  

​​Being a Muslim, I've generally found myself somewhat perplexed by Christian conservatives' preoccupation with abortion. It always struck me as odd that this could become such a divisive issue. When I lived in the Middle East, it was my job to spend, quite literally, hundreds of hours with religious conservatives. But I have no recollection of any of them even mentioning the word "abortion." This isn't to say that they wouldn't have a position on abortion if asked explicitly, but rather that it hadn't occurred to them that abortion was, or could be, a politically divisive issue. This offers up a reminder of something we too easily forget, especially now. Most political divides become political divides for reasons that are contingent rather than inherent. They are not timeless. They must, in a sense, be caused. Islam, unlike Christianity, has not experienced enough such "causes."

There are many Christian single-issue voters—likely in the millions—who view abortion as decisive in their decision to vote for one party over the other. In a Muslim context, such voters are rare at best. In fact, although I assume that such voters must exist, I am not aware of any specific cases in actually existing life.

There are a couple reasons for this. First, for something to be divisive there must be two opposing sides. This isn't so easy to find. In a country like Egypt, there isn't a pro-choice movement for "conservatives" to define themselves against. In other words, they don't need to conserve that which isn't threatened in the first place.

If we try to imagine an alternative future, it's not entirely clear what a pro-choice movement in a sexually conservative society would even look like. Abortion becomes politically relevant if there is a significant number of out-of-wedlock births, or if there is a large enough constituency that views premarital sex as a legitimate personal choice. But liberals or secularists in Arab countries wouldn't be that much different than Islamists when it comes to the immorality of premarital sex. Since there is a broad consensus over sexual mores, and because these mores aren't being challenged, no political cleavage results.

This is the demand side of the equation. On the supply side, Islam itself doesn't provide much in the way of intellectual or historical resources to weaponize abortion. On abortion itself, the mainstream Islamic position is relatively liberal. As the Muslim legal scholar Sherman Jackson notes, even the minority of scholars who consider abortion to be prohibited during the first trimester do not consider it to be a criminal offense. In other words, the prohibition against abortion is better understood as a moral exhortation rather than something that should involve the coercive apparatus of the state. (Of course, many Muslim-majority countries, in practice, are much more restrictive than Jackson's comment might suggest, but that's not necessarily a result of the Islamic legal tradition.)

In the United States, anything resembling a popular consensus on abortion—for example, that it should be "safe, legal, and rare"—no longer exists. But did it ever exist? If one goes back far enough, before Roe v. Wade, there was a time when abortion wasn't particularly divisive. This, then, is an illustrative case of how divides come to be, driven by true believers and political entrepreneurs who see an opportunity and then seize it through grassroots action and organizing. As recently as the 1970s, many Baptists were—and were perceived as—pro-choice, so much so that the Southern Baptist Convention helped put out a full-page newspaper ad affirming the right to an abortion. As David Roach recounts in a fascinating 2015 article, a 1971 resolution issued by the Southern Baptist Convention called for allowing abortion "under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother."

As the Evangelical theologian Timothy George notes, average church members may have had "a general feeling that abortion was wrong," but not much more than that. Beliefs and ideas not intensely held or felt do not change the world. It's not enough to simply think that something is wrong. Any number of things are perceived as sinful or even evil, but those things don't necessarily shape and define our politics. This, then, is a story of how politics affects theology and then how theology affects politics, driving new understandings of, in this case, ensoulment and the human person.

In Roach's article, we gain some insight into what this actually looks like. In the years after Roe v. Wade, the abortion rate increased significantly—by around 80 percent before gradually declining from those peaks. In part due to this rapid increase, a small group of ideologically-driven activists (and I don't mean that pejoratively) believed in a cause and then acted to make abortion matter more to their fellow Christians. As the issue became more salient, those who had otherwise paid little attention to the politics of abortion paid more attention. And in the process of paying attention, many Christians came to realize that Christianity said something profound about the soul and when the soul comes to be.

As the influential Baptist preacher Jerry Vines explained: "Some of our pastors in those years hadn't really studied what Scripture said about abortion. But I think the carnage drove them back to their Bibles to take a further look at it." Vines himself recounts how he himself came to a reassessment—by studying the meaning of a Greek word, brephos, from the New Testament. Brephos means baby, and it turns out brephos was used for the born and unborn alike.

Scripture hadn't changed, but the circumstances had, and so brephos, took on greater meaning and significance. And then this updated theology—emphasizing the ensoulment of the fetus—drove and fueled conservative activism in turn. Does this mean the pro-life movement, as a movement, was "created" or "manufactured"? Perhaps. But just because something is new doesn't make it any less real. It becomes just as real as anything else. Humans, through their God-given ability to interpret, make it so. And once an idea finishes becoming, it becomes quite difficult to undo, entangled as it is in God's unknowable will. We are likely to discover this the hard way.